There’s a running joke at Noma that no-one’s ever made anything from the restaurant’s first cookbook: Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. The 368-page book is a fascinating read, filled with painstakingly detailed recipes, sketches and diary entries, but with ingredients such as “shallots foraged from the island of Læsø”, it’s obviously more suited to the coffee table than the kitchen.
The restaurant’s latest cookbook, Foundations of Flavor: The Noma Guide to Fermentation, takes a different approach. Co-written by René Redzepi and David Zilber (head of the restaurant’s fermentation lab), it’s a guide to the cloudy, often confusing world of fermentation – and it’s meant to be used.
Most people know Noma for its use of foraged ingredients, but over time, Redzepi says the fermented overtook the foraged.
“When we opened, we set out with a mission to use local foods and fresh ingredients, not really understanding what they meant. As we delved into that idea, we discovered that it’s tradition in cold climates to preserve the growing season [in order] to survive the winters,” Redzepi says. “That had completely disappeared from our place, because today it’s spring in the supermarket every day of the year.”
Redzepi and his team of Noma chefs began researching the process and how it’s used around the world, before fermenting anything and everything they could get their hands on. After a few years, they built a fermentation lab in a shipping container outside the restaurant. Fermentation slowly became the base of Noma’s flavour, and its chefs became experts in the subject.
“When we took it to the next level and had a separate space to innovate in, it exploded for us,” Redzepi says. “All these new things were happening that nobody had ever seen before. They were one of a kind. We discovered that this was something incredible – that we could build new flavours to help us cook.”
There was no going back. Fermented elements elevated dishes like the team had not experienced before. "It's hard to imagine cooking without them," Redzepi says in the book.
Zilber, who moved from Canada for a two-week trial at Noma in 2014, moved from the kitchen to the fermentation lab in 2016 and propelled it forward, experimenting with everything from coffee kombucha to fermented kangaroo. This book is the culmination of everything he and Redzepi have learned about the topic since Noma began fermenting. In it, there are recipes for mango-scented honey (developed at Noma Australia and inspired by Queensland mangoes) used to amp up desserts or as a sugar substitute; vivid, bright-green celery vinegar (to spice up Bloody Marys or add a kick to salad dressing); and black garlic (crush, then use the sweet paste to make basil pesto).
Zilber says the book is for the novice fermenter just as much as the ambitious chef.
“At the time of writing, you could definitely feel this palpable buzz around the entire topic, and it was hazy enough, misunderstood enough, that it merited an explanation,” Zilber says. “The tone was really important to us. Something I very consciously tried to do when writing the recipes was pre-empt any questions people would have as they went along.”
If you’ve ever attempted to ferment at home, you’ll know it can be a precarious task. Funky smells can, and often do, make an appearance, then linger for weeks. It’s not unheard of for jars to explode in the pantry because of minor mistakes. But Zilber says fermentation is something everyone can do.
“It’s difficult to get people foraging for their own dinner, but … we can all go to the grocery store and buy basic ingredients. The microbes are at home waiting for you.”
The book is full of beautiful step-by-step photography, accessible ingredients and detailed recipes that are easy to follow. Each chapter (such as “Lacto-Fermented Fruits and Vegetables”, “Miso”, “Koji”, “Kombucha” and “Vinegar”) teaches a principle of fermentation, so before long you’ll be able to ferment almost anything in your kitchen. It’s an addictive process. According to Redzepi, “Once you start, you can never look back.”
A good place to start is the following recipe for lacto blueberries, an edited extract from the book.
“Fermented blueberries play a big part in our savoury kitchen at Noma, but of course, most people think of blueberries as a sweet treat or a topping for yogurt in the morning. Fermented blueberries boost a simple breakfast into more sophisticated territory. A big scoop of plain yogurt, a spoonful of lacto blueberries, and a drizzle of honey will easily get you through until lunch.”
Makes 1 kilogram
20g non-iodised salt
Mix the salt and blueberries together in a bowl, then transfer them to the fermentation vessel, making sure to scrape all the salt from the bowl into the container, and press the mixture down with a weight. (A heavy-duty zip-top bag filled with water will do the trick.) Cover the jar or crock with a lid, but don’t seal it so tightly that gas can’t escape.
Ferment the blueberries in a warm place until they have soured slightly but still have their sweet, fruity perfume. This should take 4 to 5 days at 28°C, or a few days longer at room temperature, but you should start taste testing after the first few days.
Once the blueberries have reached your desired level of sourness, carefully remove them from the bag or fermentation vessel, and strain the juice through a fine-mesh sieve. The blueberries and their juice can be stored in separate containers in the refrigerator for a few days without a noticeable change in flavour. To prevent further fermentation, you can also freeze them separately in vacuum-sealed bags or zip-top freezer bags with the air removed.
Excerpted from Foundations of Flavor: The Noma Guide to Fermentation by Rene Redzepi and David Zilber (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2018. Photographs by Evan Sung. Illustrations by Paula Troxler.